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Korean War

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The Korean War, from June 25, 1950 to July 27, 1953, was a conflict between communist North and anti-communist South Korea. This was also a proxy war of a kind between the United States and the Soviet Union. Principal combatants were North and South Korea, the United States and the People's Republic of China although many nations sent troops under the aegis of the United Nations.

The invasion of South Korea came as a complete surprise to the US, Dean Rusk of the State Department had told Congress on June 20 that no war was likely. Interestingly a CIA report of early March had predicted an invasion in June. US officials had previously publicly stated that America would not fight over Korea, and that the country was outside of American concern in the Pacific. This attitude may have encouraged the North or given Syngman Rhee in the South a motive to gain US support.

On hearing of the invasion Truman agreed with his advisors, unilaterally, to use US airstrikes against the North Korean forces and also ordered the Seventh Fleet to protect Formosa. The US gained a United Nations mandate for action because the Soviets were boycotting the Security Council while the (Nationalist controlled) Republic of China held the Chinese seat. Without the Soviet veto and with only Yugoslavia opposed the UN voted to aid South Korea. The US would have fought whatever the outcome, and MacArthur later told Congress "I had no connection with the UN whatsoever". US forces were eventually joined during the conflict by troops from 15 other UN members: Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, South Africa, Turkey, Thailand, Greece, the Netherlands, Ethiopia, Colombia, the Philippines, Belgium, and Luxembourg.

The US forces were suffering from demobilization which had continued since 1945. Excluding the Marines, the infantry divisions sent to Korea were at 40% of paper strength and the majority of their equipment was found to be useless.

American soldiers in Korea

The Americans organized Task Force Smith[?] and on July 5 engaged in the first North Korean/American clash of the war.

In initial stages of the war, North Korea troops overwhelmed South Korean forces and drove them to a small area in the far South around the city of Pusan. This became a desperate holding action called the Pusan Perimeter. Upon the entrance of US and UN forces, American general Douglas MacArthur, as UN commander in chief for Korea, ordered an invasion far behind the North Korean troops at Inchon. United Nations troops drove the North Koreans back past the 38th parallel and continued on toward the Yalu River border of North Korea and China. This brought the communist Chinese into the war.

The communist Chinese had issued warnings that they would react if the UN forces encroached on the frontier at the Yalu River. Mao sought Soviet aid and saw intervention as essentially defensive - "if we allow the US to occupy all of Korea... we must be prepared for the US to declare... war with China" he told Stalin. Zhou Enlai was sent to Moscow to add force to Mao's cabled arguments. Mao delayed his forces while waiting for Russian help, and the planned attack was thus postponed from the 13th to the 19th of October. Soviet assistance was limited to providing air support no nearer than sixty miles to the battlefront - the MiG-15s in PRC colours were an unpleasant surprise to the UN pilots: they held local air superiority against the F-80 Shooting Stars until the newer F-86 Sabres[?] were deployed. The Soviet role was known to the US but they kept quiet as "the last thing we [the US] wanted was... a more serious confrontation with the Soviets".

A Chinese assault beginning on October 19, 1950 under the command of General Peng Dehuai with 380,000 People's Liberation Army troops repelled the United Nations troops back to the 38th parallel, the pre-conflict border.

On January 4, 1951 communist Chinese and North Korean forces captured Seoul. The battle of Chosin Reservoir in winter was a terrible defeat for the United Nation troops, mainly American Marines. The situation was such that Truman mentioned that atomic weapons may be used, much to the alarm of his allies. MacArthur was removed from command by President Harry S Truman in 1951. The rest of the war involved little territory changes and lengthy peace negotiations. A cease fire established a demilitarized zone (DMZ) around the 38th parallel which is still today defended by North Korean on one side and South Korean and American troops on the other. No peace treaty has yet been signed 50 years later.

Korea was officially a police action not a war in US parlance. 600,000 Koreans had died and perhaps a million Chinese. US troops suffered about 50,000 fatalities, roughly equal to the Vietnam conflict but in a much shorter time. However later neglect of remembrance of this war in favor of the Vietnam War and World War I and II has caused the Korean War to be called the Forgotten War or the Unknown War.

However the war was instrumental in re-energising the US military-industrial complex from their post-war slump. The defense budget was boosted to $50 billion, the Army was doubled in size as was the number of Air Groups and they were deployed beyond American soil in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia, including Vietnam where covert aid to the French was made overt. The Cold War became a much stronger state of mind for American policy makers.

Japan was a key beneficiary of the war. The US material requirements were organised through a Special Procurements system, which allowed for local purchasing without the complex Pentagon procurement system. Over $3.5 billion was spent with Japanese companies, peaking at $809 million in 1953 and still significant in 1955, other foreign non-military investment was less than 5% of this. US Aid Counterpart Funds gave Japan, by 1956, the most modern shipyards in the world and a 26% share in lauched tonnage. Left-wing organisations were closed down and the zaibatsu went from being distrusted to being encouraged - Mitsui[?], Mitsubishi and Sumitomo[?] were amongst the zaibatsu that thrived, not only on orders from the military but through American industrial experts, including W. Edwards Deming. Japanese manufacturing grew by 50% between March 1950 and 1951. By 1952 pre-war standards of living were regained and output was twice the level of 1949. The 1951 peace treaty returned Japanese sovereignty (excluding Okinawa and the Ryukyu islands) and the non-belligerency clause in the constitution was being considered a "mistake" by 1953.

Korean War order of battle

Further reading

  • translated by Bin Yu and Xiaobing Li, Mao's Generals Remember Korea, University Press of Kansas, 2001, hardcover 328 pages, ISBN 0700610952

The movie and television series M A S H were set in Korea during the Korean War.

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